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Herbert London: What John Dewey Taught President Obama

The president’s words, “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” echo through the corridors of public opinion. It seems that every talking head has commented on this statement. Some assert the president was merely stating the obvious since business needs an infrastructure in order to get off the ground. Others contend the president has a tin ear and doesn’t understand the personal sacrifice that accounts for business success.

One issue, however, has been largely ignored: what is the origin of his collectivist belief? The American Constitution and the Founding Fathers predicated the new nation on the standard of individual liberty. Recognizing unique and variegated talent, it stands to reason that the efflorescence of individualism will result in different economic conditions. President Obama indicated that his fundamental difference with the Founders was their avoidance of economic equality, even though this was the natural outcome of individual liberty.

President Obama was not alone in addressing this question. John Dewey, the philosopher and ethicist, was an early forbearer of this position. Dewey, despite rather obtuse language, argued that traditional nineteenth century liberalism rested on a “false conception of the individual.” In texts such as The Ethics of Democracy and Christianity and Democracy, Dewey criticized the idea of an individual as an independent entity. Instead he thought of individuals “relationally.”  As he saw it, individualism could be sustained only when social life is understood as an organism in which the well being of each part was tied to the well being of the whole. Personal freedom consists not merely through the absence of external constraints, but through participation in an ethically desirable social order.

For Dewey, “men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations” to one another and the state or government that represents individuals through a “unity of purpose and interest.” Democracy itself is redefined as a collective, not merely in political institutions, but in a wide range of social spheres, including most significantly, civic education. Inquiry, in the Deweyan cosmology, is designed to solve problems in the “consummatory” course of action or the general state of affairs. Inquiry is therefore communal in the sense that findings should appeal to the experience of others for confirmation.

The one bugaboo for Dewey was the Lockean belief in an individual surrounded by a protective cordon of rights which define personal liberty. Dewey viewed individuality as a social condition. Freedom in its fullest sense is only possible in a canonical form of social order, in which all take part in shaping the conditions of a common life. The value of individual liberty requires reconstruction of the social order along participatory and democratic lines.

It is instructive that during the Great Depression, Dewey attempted to redefine the American creed by maintaining that only a socialized economy could yield personal liberty. Presumably the liberation of human potential occurs in a group with interests in common.

As one might guess, Dewey does not address the issue of non-participation or the disagreements that occur over the meaning of “common interest.” Nonetheless, at a time when economic convulsion was in the air many were prepared to accept an “experimental” interpretation of the United States. Clearly President Obama was not among them. Nevertheless, he inherited and embraced the Deweyan view. Why else would he contend that “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…” This is John Dewey with a vengeance. Only through a social order or a collective can individual freedom be achieved and only through a government that creates the requisite platform can business flourish.

Never mind that Thomas Edison or Bill Gates did not rely on government for their inventions, nor did the Founders believe that an expansive government was necessary for the promotion of individual liberty. On the contrary, government – when too large and intrusive – stifles liberty. That point has been an essential lesson of the twentieth century, experience that contradicts the Deweyan assumptions and his ideological heir, President Barack Obama.

Herbert London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.